The Christmas our daughter was barely 5 months old, my husband and I boarded a plane with her from Austria, where we were living, to Southern California—a behemoth of a trip, more than 30 hours door to door. (This doesn’t include the nine-hour time difference.)
Our families were dying to meet the baby, and we figured: She’s small! It’ll be easy! And it’s so lovely in Orange County! Goodbye, dreary Viennese winter.
The minute we got to the airport and saw the lines stretched out to eternity, I broke down sobbing. I was out of my mind with sleep deprivation, and breastfeeding was still touch and go. How on earth would we survive? Had I brought enough formula, changes of clothes, burp cloths, diapers? Had I forgotten Sophie the Giraffe? (Had I even packed my own passport?) I literally turned to my husband and said, “Forget it.”
We went anyway: flew 11 hours to Chicago (the baby slept for an hour and didn’t even fit in the bassinet), endured a four-hour delay at O’Hare due to a storm, and got zero assistance from airline workers, who lectured us on why travelers with kids didn’t get to pre-board (“Studies show that the plane doesn’t fill up any quicker.”)
By the time I got to change my daughter’s diaper—many arguments and terminals later—she had soaked through all her clothes into the Ergo carrier. The image of her pinned to my husband’s chest in the Ergo, wild-eyed with exhaustion while we waited on a delayed flight, will haunt me forever.
By the time we got to SoCal, I was a wreck, as was our daughter, who did nothing but scream from 1 to 4 a.m. We never made that trip again.
Holidays really are the worst time to travel.
According to AAA, Thanksgiving travel in 2017 was the busiest it has been in more than 12 years, with 51 million people on the roads, train, and in the air—an uptick of over 1 million people from last year.
Holiday travel is notoriously awful for everyone, but it creates a particular kind of hell for parents and pregnant women. Gone are the days of settling in with a tiny bottle of wine, People magazine, and a Julia Roberts movie.
For pregnant women, there is often the issue of intense morning sickness, the constant need to pee, uncomfortable seats, awful smells, and strangers reaching for your bump. And for parents? Between air and car sickness, sufficient changes of clothing, enough activities to keep kids occupied, foiled naps, ear popping, kids who won’t sit still or stop whining or wailing, time changes, and unpredictable schedules, it is a recipe for disaster.
So what can you do to keep your cool?
Plan, Plan, Plan: The Basics
Choose your travel time wisely.
Pick a travel time that will be least disruptive to the kids’ schedules. If you’re flying, try not to take off around, say, dinnertime, or in the middle of the toddler’s nap. If it’s a long-haul flight and you think your kid might sleep, choose an overnight and prep them in advance: “Tonight you get to sleep on an airplane!”
If not, make sure they’re well rested before you get on the plane. (So leaving on a 6 a.m. flight that requires you be at the airport at 4:30 a.m.? Not a great plan.) If you’re driving, consider leaving right before a nap, or if it’s a long drive, putting the kids in PJs and taking off right before bedtime.
Choose the right seats.
If your kid is just starting to walk, get an aisle seat. There’s nothing more annoying to a person trying to watch a movie than being asked to get up 107 times so a toddler can wander up and down the aisles. If your child is older, the window seat is great for cloud-watching and pinning stickers to the window. Just make sure they use the bathroom before you board.
Buy travel insurance.
There’s what seems like a 50 percent chance one of your kids will get sick before you leave. It might feel like a waste of money if you don’t use travel insurance, but when two kids are throwing up the night before you take off, you’ll be thrilled that you aren’t losing thousands of hard-earned bucks only to stay home and empty out a bucket.
Strategize about the stroller.
The Mountain Buggy Nano stroller and the YOYA stroller count as carry-on luggage. They fold up so small they can be stored above your seat, so no waiting for everyone to deplane to get your stroller back! It is especially useful if you’re traveling alone with a kid or two and need to know you’ll have access to it at all times.
Get the kid on board.
Fill your child in on the travel plan ahead of time, and keep repeating the information until they really seem to get it. This is a way to get them psyched for the trip—“I’m going to go on a long airplane ride to see cousin Susie!”—and also to make sure they’re not alarmed by any of the steps you’ll take along the way.
How and What to Pack
I spoke with Kitt Fife and Joni Weiss of Practically Perfect. These two—who have six kids between them, as well as a thriving organizing and lifestyle company based in Los Angeles—are experts at getting from A to B with a big brood and everyone’s sanity (mostly) intact.
- Pack all activities in a backpack for your child. If they are old enough, they should be the one to carry it.
- Bring an empty water bottle for each kid to fill up after you get through security. For car travel, give each kid a full water bottle before you leave. It’s best if they have straw tops to avoid spills.
- Do not forget the chargers. It’s awesome that you remembered the phones, iPads, computers, and Kindles. But did you pack the chargers, too?
- Medication. Doesn’t your kid always spike a fever when you’re halfway to Grandma and Grandpa’s? Make sure you have enough Tylenol on hand. If you’re worried about TSA requirements, buy chewables. Also bring enough Kleenex.
- Extra clothing. For the kids and for you (yes, you: You do not want to smell like puke for hours on end). If you have a toddler or baby, bring at least two changes per kid. If you’re going on an overnight flight, pack pajamas, too. Once the kid starts to look tired, get them changed and create a more sleep-inducing environment with a favorite luvie, a book, a bottle or breast, and, if possible, dim the lights or bring a sleep mask.
- Snacks. Plan for a combo of healthy snacks (sliced apples, nuts, dried fruit, fruit pouches) and snacks that will excite the kids because they rarely get them. A few great sweet treats for kids are chocolate peanut gems or mini chocolate chips.
- Trash bags and Ziplocs. Ziplocs are the best for vomit (seal in the smell!) If someone’s clothes are soiled due to a spill on a flight, a trash bag or Ziploc can also come in handy.
- Wipes. Enough said.
- Hand sanitizer. You can go DIY, buy natural, or grab the Purell.
- Toilet seat covers. BYO. These are great for toddlers who want to touch the seat.
- If you’re pregnant: Compression socks.
- If you’re nursing: Bring swaddle blankets. These can be used to cover dirty surfaces, shield the baby from light to help them sleep, cover your breast, or for warmth.
- Mad Libs are super entertaining for older kids.
- Water Wow is wonderful for younger kids (the best for mess-free art on-the-go).
- Action Plates are self-contained and super entertaining.
- Pack a notebook for each child and markers in a pencil case. Fife has these for her kids and breaks them out only on trips.
- For road trips, Weiss’ kids are obsessed with the license plate game. Good, old-fashioned fun. A “letter hunt” (or number hunt) is a great idea for kids who are too young to read the names of the states. A clipboard/notebook for recording comes in handy here.
- Bingo sets for the car!
Move, move, move.
When our family went on road trips back in the ’80s, I always bolted out of the car at rest stops and cartwheeled across the lawn. I didn’t do this for any logical reason, I just knew I needed to move. Adults need this, too! When you’ve spent hours in a car, it is absolutely vital to move your body at every opportunity.
If you have kids, you can make a game of it—race them around the rest area, see how many jumping jacks you can all do. Get your heart rate going a bit. Even if you’re in a rush to get somewhere, frequent stops can help make the whole trip much more pleasant.
On a flight this is obviously a little more challenging, but you can walk quickly to your gate (f your kids are old enough or take them in strollers) and you can walk around the gate area, do jumping jacks, or be that person doing a handstand next to the baggage claim!
Looking for ways to move on the plane? Walking up and down the aisle with a squealing toddler might be enough, but you can also do in-flight yoga—poses that can easily be done in your seat. Take standing breaks in the rear of the plane, and make sure you’re drinking enough water.
Dealing With Anxiety
Oh, the anxiety of travel. Sometimes all goes smoothly, sometimes it doesn’t. But according to LA-based clinical psychologist Vanessa Katz, PsyD, there are a few things you can do to set yourself up for the sanest possible trip.
- Give yourself enough time to pack. This might seem obvious, but it is never wise to start your packing at 11:00 the night before you leave only to realize most of your underwear is dirty and you can’t find any sunhats.
- Make lists. You can even divide things into different categories: carry-on, suitcase, kids’ bags.
- Read up on your destination. “Find things other travelers have said about a place,” Katz says. “This helps reassure you that others have been okay.”
- Think about what’s really making you anxious—and share it with someone. Your partner, your mother, your therapist. Talking it out almost always helps relieve the anxiety.
- Know that you will be coming home. Vacations are finite. Try to enjoy your few days or weeks away, knowing it’ll all be over soon.
Extra Time With Family
If your flight home is delayed because of weather, make sure you have enough stuff to keep the kids occupied. Chances are they will have a lot of new Christmas gifts to dig into, but this might be a time to indulge them a bit by allowing them to watch their favorite shows or taking them to a movie. If the weather is okay where you are—and you can’t stand one more day with your extended family—use it as an excuse to see some sights nearby, even if it’s just the local mall! Scope the options out ahead of time.
Holiday travel can be stressful, but remember that even if everything goes wrong, there is almost always something wonderful to be found in the adventure—or at least a good story to tell!